Whose Story Gets Told?

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The 90's version of school reform has its own special flavor, one which even a cynic would need to acknowledge. What makes this reform effort special is its emphasis on relationships, its attempt to find new ways to build a sense of community and to restructure schools in order to create more humane environments. In the 90's version of reform there are new procedures for hiring staff, new ways to hold schools, teachers, and youngsters accountable, a new paradigm for school-parent collaboration, even a new vocabulary. We now have school-based management, shared decisionmaking, teacher empowerment, collaborative learning, and school-based accountability.

As the language suggests, this reform movement is all about power and who has it: those inside the schools or those outside. It is no accident that the current struggles involve debates over downsizing school bureaucracies and relocating decisionmaking power from central offices to schools themselves. Where teachers worked in isolation behind their classroom doors, there's talk about joint decisionmaking and collaboration. Where top-down management reinforced a factory-model notion of schooling, there are now attempts by teachers to take responsibility for hiring colleagues and monitoring competence through peer review. In the midst of calls for national standards and accountability, there are efforts to institute teacher-driven procedures such as the Primary Language Record, portfolios, and graduation by exhibition.

So reform in the 90's is about how power is exercised and by whom. How much of this power shift is real and how long will it last? Do issues of power and control have anything to do with the fundamental purpose of school anyway--that is, how teachers teach and how children learn?

Questions such as these have already resulted in a proliferation of studies, articles, documentation projects, interviews, and critiques. The educational-research community, it seems, has struck pay dirt. Sessions on reform and restructuring preoccupied participants at the 1993 convention of the American Educational Research Association, where more than 80 presenters delivered papers on topics ranging from "Sisyphus Revisited: Making New Schools Work" to "The Conceptualization and Measurement of Authentic Instructions: Challenge to School Restructuring'' to "Systemic School Reform: New Approaches to Coherent State Policy."There were roundtables, seminars, speeches, and symposia--all of them based on studies in schools and about reform.

Of course, it's true, educational research has always been popular. With some 6,000 education doctorates awarded each year, the field has almost acquired the status of a cottage industry. Where one group of studies chronicles the demise of American education (consider the outpouring of critical judgments from national report cards to polls), another highlights programs designed to "fix" the mess. Schools, it seems, are endlessly fascinating places to study. And why not? They have their share of eccentrics, geniuses, adorable youngsters, and entertaining teenagers (who, when confined within the school walls, seem amazingly insightful, even quotable). Schools are microcosms of the broader society--a mirror on our culture, a window on our future. Schools are arguably more fun than hospitals, possibly safer than prisons, and usually more entertaining than factories. So why not study them, especially now, the most lively period since the 60's?

At our school, the number of requests to study what we do has escalated dramatically. There are researchers interested in documenting a "restructured" school's approach to "professional community building," in studying how students in a "restructured" school acquire values of good citizenship, in observing how teachers "interact" with curriculum, in exploring how "dropouts" become "dropins," and recording how "technology interfaces with curriculum-building." Everyone, it seems, from seasoned professors to Ph.D. candidates, is interested in how schools reflect or relate to the reform movement.

One's first reaction to all this is uncritically positive. As might be imagined, it doesn't take much to flatter a school staff accustomed primarily to those supervisory visits required to fulfill contractual obligations. However, a closer look would reveal how superficially the new spirit of collaboration and power-sharing has touched the educational-research community. Whether by design or habit, those who study schools (be they from universities, think tanks, or school bureaucracies) prefer to keep their distance from the schools they study. They formulate their questions, develop their methodologies, organize their fieldwork, debate, present, and publish results almost entirely outside the schools they research--rather like museum curators who travel to strange and wondrous cultures to watch the tribal dance and take away the artifacts for display.

Researchers start from a different place and serve a different public than do practitioners. The ideas and questions that inform their work are often irrelevant, if not downright bewildering, to those who work in schools or send their children there. (It's hard to imagine topics such as "A Confirmatory Analysis of Factors Influencing the Difficulty of Form-Development Items" having a major impact on teachers or parents). On the one hand, researchers are obsessed with the need to publish, be "relevant," and ask questions of apt importance to academic colleagues, readers of educational journals, and professional policymakers. Practitioners, on the other hand, are consumed by the day-to-dayness of school: of finding ways to meet the challenges from one's students, the needs of one's colleagues, the demands of one's supervisors. Researchers are out to prove a point, validate their point of view, formulate a theory, emphasize the esoteric. Practitioners dwell on the practicalities of teaching, on coping with skill-deficient youngsters, on responding to the idiosyncrasies of politicians who demand 100 percent on norm-referenced tests. Between the two, there is a clash of agendas, of context, of perspective, and certainly of priorities.

Consider the researchers themselves. Most approach schools with ideas about how schools work and how learning does or doesn't happen. Like the rest of us, they work from a set of values, often unchallenged, even unacknowledged. They have their own, often narrow, ideas about what a "good" school looks like, what "successful" means, and what makes for "effective" teaching. Taking a page from Britain's education minister, who believes that motherhood pretty much qualifies women for elementary teaching, most researchers believe themselves to be experts on schools simply because they went to one. Perhaps this explains why university faculty members routinely hand over field-based assignments to graduate students whose knowledge of schools is limited to their own elementary and secondary school memories (and who, it should be noted, are seldom reticent about offering opinions or passing judgment on what they observe.) It must be that schools, unlike other institutions, lack complexity. Imagine someone making the argument that shopping in a supermarket makes one an expert in the intricacies of wholesale and retail marketing, or that visits to a sick relative in the hospital give one an understanding of operating-room procedures. Try convincing an editor that eating in a restaurant entitles you to become the paper's food critic.

But if graduate students lack an understanding of the complexities of school life, so do most of their mentors. As members of university faculties, they spend relatively little time in the schools they study and when they do they are treated, like most visitors, as respected (though not necessarily loved) grandparents: talking to youngsters, interviewing teachers, enjoying (on the good days) the humor and excitement of a well-greased school machine but seldom catching the subtleties, the complexities of the place. (How many studies, for example, include interviews with school secretaries, custodians, or paraprofessionals?) Such nuances, though essential to understanding, are revealed only through time and trust.

One might be tempted to minimize such concerns if there weren't other equally troubling criticisms which quickly surface in conversations with school-based educators. Experience has taught them to question the ethics of a great deal of research methodology, its relevance to improving practice, and the fiscal priorities which sanction what appears to be extravagant spending on research when class sizes are rising, resources dwindling, and taxpayers are becoming restive.

With respect to the ethical issues raised by practitioners several questions quickly surface: How thoroughly do researchers explain their underlying theories, assumptions, and expectations to those they study? To what degree is a school staff able to question, perhaps even object to the design or procedures proposed? What understandings have been negotiated regarding how data and conclusions are to be reported? And how do researchers handle disagreements which may result from the interpretation of data used in a school-based study? What do schools do if the researcher gets it wrong? This is not an uncommon complaint; as one veteran practitioner commented, "Seeing the results of research done in your school is like being involved in an event reported in the newspaper; it's like you weren't there." Some misinformation can be responded to, some cannot.

Do researchers accept responsibility for the fallout which may result once a research study is made public? For as we know well, even a positive case study can cause problems. Do researchers care that singling out a staff member for praise or criticism or publishing a comment made in an offhand way inevitably leaves a residue of hurt feelings that may damage working relationships in a school? Those who do research might be justifiably skittish if their own university department or organization were subjected to the sort of probe usually reserved for schools. Is there an agreement about what should be done with findings a researcher might argue should be included in a study "in the interests of 'objectivity'" but which a school feels will cause staff problems or which is thought to be "highly judgmental"? When researchers can, without hesitation, publicly present case studies describing a "bad," "not so good," and "successful" school, as occurred at last year's A.E.R.A. convention, these questions become more than academic.

What about the often heard claim that research is an essential element in the improvement of practice? Considering the paucity of reforms resulting from the avalanche of studies, reports, and surveys on the crisis in teacher education, it's hard to take this seriously. Despite this, there is the widely held assumption that school research does result in better practice. The assumption works like this: Research highlights an issue or public concern (for example, a decline in educational standards, by citing lower test scores, national knowledge surveys, increase-in-crime statistics, etc.); research alerts us to a range of problems related to the selected issue (lack of bureaucratic vision, poorly prepared teachers, low student self-esteem, impersonality of large institutions, inadequate teaching techniques, etc.); research documents the "lessons" learned from demonstration projects designed to "fix" the problem (small schools, cooperative learning, school/community connections, etc.). Following publication of the research findings, the assumption continues that someone reads or hears about these "lessons" and, completing the circle of research influence, directs that results be replicated. That "someone," of course, is a highly placed bureaucrat responsible for generating policies via mandates and a hierarchical structure.

The problem with such mythology is that it is based upon a naïve view about how change occurs and is sustained. The reality is that researchers and policymakers often don't communicate directly with one another, unless, of course, the researchers are retained by the educational authority itself or an influential body such as a foundation. In that case, the research itself may be suspect, for as observers of Tory governmental policy have noted, the British government's attempt to establish conditions and control release of research findings because they foot the bill smacks of censorship. Further, even when there is an attempt to replicate practice based on research, those most affected--the stakeholders: administrators, teachers, parents, not to mention the children--often remain unconvinced and uncommitted and before long, the connection between the "model" program and replicated version is virtually unrecognizable.

The flip side--where research echoes what we know empirically and provides compelling evidence that certain practices are highly desirable--often falters as well if the reforms proposed run counter to prevailing political winds. What else explains the inability of the vast amount of research documenting the importance of high-quality early-childhood programs (and supported enthusiastically by parents, teachers, and school administrators) to make its way into public policy? Moreover, even when research findings appear to drive policy decisions, the connection may be suspect, for despite the proliferation of research findings on the importance of small, community-like school settings for young people, one suspects that the creation of such schools in cities like New York may be more the result of uncontrolled violence occurring regularly in the large, impersonal institutions, than it is of the large number of compelling research studies. And what about the money spent on educational research? At a time when shrinking budgets have caused retrenchment everywhere, a school staff might be forgiven if it feels less than charitable toward those who obtain substantial grants to study the schools which struggle to survive. It's hard not to question priorities when a university researcher can command a four-figure honorarium to present the case study of a "successful school-based innovation" when the school itself receives nothing except more visitors, or when evaluations of programs seem to receive funding more readily than the programs themselves.

School practitioners could underscore these points with numerous anecdotes. They could describe the university professor who insisted on her right to study teachers' morale in ways those involved felt diminished their self-esteem and professionalism, or the educational researcher who has built a national reputation for a schoolwide innovation without ever acknowledging that it is the school staff which crafted the program and carried it out--rather like an editor claiming ownership of an author's work. They could talk about the research studies which, in the "replication tradition," document "successful" school programs structurally and organizationally but fail to convey the level of just plain hard work involved in making them succeed. They might recall the college professor who was so stiff and awkward talking to the kids that he had to be rescued from them by school staff members, or wince about the endless questionnaires and surveys they are asked to complete in the interests of some national study or other (the results of which never seem to make it back to the school). Or they could talk about the irritation of seemingly always having research done to or on, rather than with or for them.

Given such experiences, one might ask why schools cooperate. Why they allow researchers through the schoolyard gates. It's a fair question. It has to do with power and how little of it schools and people in schools feel they have. Bruised by an endless round of mandates, directives, and edicts from on high, sniped at by a press which views schools as good copy, and bashed by politicians who treat each school crisis as election fodder, those who work in schools feel, not surprisingly, under siege. They allow themselves to be excluded from the policy-level debates about reform and absent from the conversations about how funds ought to be allocated. They remain silent when they are not included in discussions about how their own school should be evaluated. They behave as though they were powerless, their schools passive receptacles accepting whatever is dished out. They allow researchers in, act as conduits for the permission letters home, fill out endless surveys and questionnaires, permit findings to be published without advance warning, and even retreat from decisions to opt out of some research projects when pressured by district bureaucrats to cooperate. With schools feeling defeated and powerless, the result more resembles colonialism than it does the oft-studied teacher empowerment.

Without question, schools themselves must accept some responsibility for all this: Not only are they passive with regard to outsiders, but many lack the determination to be self-critical, to think about what is or isn't good practice. Others are unaccountable to parents and sloppy about what they need to do to improve learning outcomes. With or without research it is obvious that such schools fail children. Ultimately, however, the question is how best to encourage schools to reject hiding behind hierarchical structures, to accept responsibility for what they do, and to engage in an ongoing review of practice and become "empowered" and empowering.

Clearly, what is needed is a new paradigm of research--one which acknowledges the difference between what researchers think they know from theoretical models and what schoolpeople know from practice, or as Donald Schon puts it, between "professional knowledge and knowing-in-action." We need a new research model based on inquiry-based collaboration in which researchers and school communities together explore issues of mutual interest and acknowledged value.

There are many important research questions relating to teaching and learning waiting to be answered; there is a desperate need to document good practice, analyze how children learn, explore ways to teach analysis and skills of discourse. There are questions to be answered about conditions which best initiate and sustain innovation. As the Claremont, Calif., report "Voices From the Inside" has dramatically shown, there are teachers, children, and parents who have a great deal to say about how to make schools and schooling more effective if only someone would listen.

If reform in the 90's is to succeed, it must embrace the realigning of relationships and power and seize every opportunity to build up, not tear down, the self-respect and self-confidence of those responsible for teaching children. Research must serve schools, not exploit them. The new paradigm of school-based research must establish clear guidelines regarding research methodologies and propose new ways to report results. Regular feedback must become an integral aspect of school-based research, so its impact on practice remains central. If exposès are what we want, then call in the press, not academic researchers operating undercover. In the new model, staff members must have an opportunity to respond to and disagree with research findings.

The new research paradigm must also address the all-important issues of time and money. Research budgets must reflect the involvement of practitioners through arrangements which allow them to join the research effort in a meaningful way, and schools which serve as training grounds for "wannabe" researchers ought to be compensated for the drain on their resources.

Fortunately, there are models on which to build this new paradigm of school-based-research models in which the relationship between practitioners and researchers has been redefined and the power issues realigned to foster, not undermine, collaboration. There are self-studies, in which schools have embarked on a detailed analysis of practice undertaken with the expertise of supportive members of the research community; there are the school-based reviews of curriculum and assessments which have produced new methods of accountability. In each case, the stakeholders have assumed a central role in determining the research agenda and in formulating the means by which it is to be pursued. Though results may not have immediate application, the purpose of such research is clear and of perceived value to the school. Such models result from a respect for practitioners which acknowledges that whatever the research, it is secondary in importance to the ongoing commitment to the teaching and learning of students.

If the 90's version of educational reform is about the realigning of power and the shifting of relationships, its success will depend on the extent to which the outsiders and insiders put the cause of schools squarely in the center of that reform. Will the research community have the courage to take up the challenge?

Vol. 13, Issue 17, Pages 34-35, 48

Published in Print: January 19, 1994, as Whose Story Gets Told?
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